Monday, June 23, 2014

Arguments for the sake of heaven...

40 years ago...
Forty years ago this past weekend, I became a Bar Mitzvah. Randy Weingarten and I read from Parshat Korach. This past Shabbat I again read from Parshat Korach to celebrate the anniversary. 

What follows is my d'var Torah - from this time around!


Pirkei Avot 5:17 tells us:



“Every argument that is for the sake of heaven will endure, and if it is not for the sake of heaven, it will not endure.” It goes on to give us examples each kind of argument. The debates of Hillel and Shammai are given as being for the sake of heaven. Throughout the Mishnah, these rabbis of first century BCE Judea and their students wrestled with hundreds of issues. Shammai only wins six times. Yet no matter how heated things got it was always clear that the argument was about how to best do what God commanded, how to help us be the best Jews we could.

The Talmud tells us that no matter how different their philosophies were (think strict constructionist and loose constructionist for a wildly oversimplified summary), the sons and daughters of the members of the two schools would still marry one another. And to this day we remember their arguments. Do we add a candle each night of Chanukah or take one away? (Add) Hillel taught us that. And do we load the candles from left to right or from right to left? (right to left) Shammai taught us that. Their arguments were for the sake of heaven and they endure.

Our parshah gives us the example of the

– the argument that is NOT for the sake of heaven. Korach is Moses and Aaron’s first cousin. His father was their father’s younger brother. In Parshat Bamidbar, Elitzafan – another first cousin, the son of the youngest of four brothers, was appointed the prince over the family. While we know that the Torah is filled with younger sons rising above their older brothers (ummm… let’s see…Abraham – younger..Isaac – younger…Jacob – younger…Judah –younger…you get the idea), Korach clearly thought he outranked Elitzfan. As the oldest son of the next oldest brother, the midrash suggests that he thought he should have the next honor after Aaron and Moses. Another Midrash says that Korach had a fairly high ranking job (for a slave) back in Egypt, and so was used to being treated as one with authority. So he challenges Moses and Aaron for the leadership. Essentially saying “You are not the boss of me!” and claiming the right to be the leader.

For Korach it is “all about me.” He reminds me of the wicked child in the Pesach Hagadah who excludes himself from the group. He is told that if had been in Egypt he would not have known redemption. Korach may have made it out of Egypt, but he doesn’t really get redeemed! On the other hand, for Hillel and Shammai, it is “all about us.” They are like the wise son, trying to figure out how to make peoplehood work.

Follow the reading and you will see that Korach and his pals (and 250 others who joined them) end up swallowed by the earth in front of the whole community. They did not endure, and their argument is not one that we find useful today. Respect and the right to lead is earned, not grabbed. May we continue to be led by leaders who have earned it.

There was still a lot of wandering after Korach’s mutiny. Another 38 years – bringing the total to forty years in the wilderness. In that time we learned to leave the slave mentality behind and began to develop a sense of peoplehood.

It was forty years ago – tomorrow – when I was first called to the Torah to read from Parshat Korach. It sure doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. Gone are the baby face and the orange and brown plaid sport coat and the burnt umber and white saddle shoes with the tall stacked heels. Gone is pepper from my salt and pepper hair as well.

I have not spent the past forty years in the wilderness, although it has been a long and amazing journey. The wandering actually stopped after eleven years when I met Audrey in December of 1985. The journey since then has been wonderful and deliberate. It helps that she is willing to stop and ask for directions! I have spent nearly half of the last forty years with you. And it continues to be an adventure. I am happy to say that our congregation is one where nearly every argument is for the sake of heaven. And I hope we have many more of them!

 Kein yehi ratzon!

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